The Peripheral Effects of Hatcheries on NW Rivers

Photo courtesy of Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife

OSU Professor Dr. Michael Blouin was quoted in the Oregonian story mentioned in yesterday's Spey Today post stating, "In my opinion, the question of whether genetic change occurs in hatcheries has been answered," Blouin said. "If we could quit arguing about that and find out why, then we're all on the same team again."

Blouin's statement contains a book-length argument.  It followed me fishing recently, echoing again and again as I fished a run widely known to hold broodstock as well as wild steelhead.  Here Blouin points out that we anglers are divided in to two camps, hatchery-supporters and hatchery-detractors.  This divide, at least on the rivers I frequent, often seems to parallel the (over-emphasized) division between gear and fly anglers, which works to infuse the argument with hints of larger social/political divisions.  On this particular day, I was asked by the state fisheries managers if I would help them capture wild fish for the broodstock program--something they request from most guides on the river--and something this guide politely refused.

But Blouin's statement moves past the stale divisions, and advocates for a position that he assumes all of us anglers can get behind: hatcheries producing steelhead that are genetically identical to those spawned and reared naturally.

On my first pass through the run--my fly turning broadside and swimming over the boulders--I was deeply attracted to Blouin's notion.  Imagine, hatcheries living up to their initial promise: creating thousands more steelhead for us to catch without harming the remaining wild steelhead...  But then on my second pass through the run, the initial shine of Blouin's idea wore thin for me.

Photo courtesy of Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife

Part of the problem has to do with habitat; for as long as we have hatcheries on our rivers, millions of angler-dollars will continue to go to mass-producing fish instead of repairing the habitat losses (i.e. lack of large wood in river and estuary, lack of shoreside cover, excessive silt run-off, etc).  And then there is the fiscal inefficiency of hatcheries: each returning adult hatchery steelhead costs hundreds to produce (one federal audit of Mitchell-funded hatcheries found that each returning adult winter steelhead costs $255). Hatcheries mask the symptom without curing the disease.

But more than that, as long as we have hatcheries, anglers will continue to shirk their responsibilities to the watersheds they fish; instead of working to create conservation easements--instead of working together to protect native fish--we'll fight with each other about smolt stockings.

As I finished the run and walked back up to the boat, I realized though that I am not "anti-hatchery," despite my reservations about Blouin's statement. I do see a role for hatcheries on Northwest rivers--just not on rivers that still sustain native populations.  And unfortunately, we have far too many of those rivers.   One thing we can all agree on is we'd like to keep that number from growing.

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